Mozart’s music is scintillating brilliance. Some studies have shown that it has the effect of stimulating the hearer’s consciousness to more facilely learn intricate concepts. But did you know that Mozart was influenced by someone who may have had an even greater intellect and musical artistry than he? Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia. Marianne, nicknamed Nannerl, was Mozart’s older sister whom he adored and who was a mirror image of her brother in prodigal playing (harpsichord and pianoforte), and passionate musicianship.
The Other Mozart (directed by Isaac Byrne), is a superb chronicle of Marianne Mozart portrayed with majestic elegance, wit, and ethereal grace by the ingenious Sylvia Milo (she created and wrote the work), in a solo performance. Through this sterling production we understand the amazing possibility that Marianne was even more gifted than Wolfgang Amadeus. This theme is solidified by the prodigious correspondence between siblings and family that has been preserved. In part the letters, stories, and facts about the Mozart family history, especially information about the exceptional and talented woman known as Mozart’s sister, led to the conceptualization of this luminous production. One of the most poignant themes of Milo’s enlightening work intimates that if Marianne Mozart had been encouraged and supported by father Leopold to the extent Wolfgang Amadeus was, she may have overshadowed her sibling and we would be lionizing her compositions as much or even more than we laud his.
As Milo reveals, however, we barely note that Mozart had a sister, much less speak her name in the same breath as her brother’s. The reason underscores a vital message which Milo emphasizes throughout The Other Mozart. The theme resonates the sad example of genocidal ignorance exacted by a culture’s oppressive folkways. Such mores harm women by “stifling” their opportunity to make dazzling contributions. They demean and oppress men by forcing them to play the “superior male” social role.
Marianne’s genius was encapsulated in a woman’s body. Of social and material “necessity” she could not be encouraged as her brother was to musically evolve once she achieved a marriageable age. Her feminine accoutrements were a tragic liability in 17th century Salzberg, Austria. Her gender overshadowed her unique being and exceptional artistry which became subordinated to it, though she persisted on her own even after she was married. At that time and place a woman’s ambitions did not exceed marrying well, attending to children, and taking up an existence of droll domestication. Women retained no identity apart from their husband’s last name.
As such Marianne’s astounding musical achievements, most importantly the compositions alluded to in letters the siblings wrote to each other, were disappeared by the cloak of sexual inferiority. Not her father, nor her brother, nor her husband, nor she preserved them for future generations. By inference Milo’s work questions, how many other female flowers through the centuries went unrecognized and withered because they were not pressed and preserved between the pages of a male dominated history?
Beginning with Marianne’s exceptional drive toward music as a young child, Milo’s Marianne relates the chronicle of her greatness and evanescence from historical cultural memory. Milo takes in the audience as her confidante and weaves a spellbinding story that is flecked with beauteous light and opulence and dark tragedy. We hear how how Leopold toured London, Paris, Vienna, etc., with both Wolfie and Marianne who were prodigies and received accolades for their brilliant playing, until the age of doom arrives (18 years-old), when Marianne must be trained for the female arts-sewing, embroidery, etc. Afterward, only Wolfie is allowed to tour, musically evolve, and see the world while Marianne’s greatness and shining potential is chopped off like a tree whose crown is topped and settled into deformity.
Ever present throughout Marianne’s chronicle is the inequality sledgehammer which sporadically is lifted up by Leopold, her mother or others and applied to beat her down into obedience and role submission. For example, she confides that she was discouraged by Leopold from playing at an earlier age despite her pleadings and demonstration of musical aptitude. He doesn’t allow her to play until she is seven because he didn’t want her to ruin her “technique.” In an incredible irony, Marianne resorts to playing dainty, china teacups with spoons, enamored of the differing tinkling sounds (beautifully echoed with the musical score by Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen-featured composers of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center).
When her brother bursts onto the scene, Marianne humorously presages his annoying arrival imitating his wailing screams. We learn how he is petted as the “boy.” We discover though she was held back, Leopold encourages Wolfie to play almost as soon as he shows an interest in emulating his sister. When Marianne calls out Leopold on “ruining” Wolfie’s “technique,” Leopold is dismissive of her. Both her parents extol their son.
Through Marianne’s exhortations, Milo’s work lays out the unequal treatment of brother and sister poignantly so that we understand how this reverberated in the stones of time to gradually occlude her identity and reduce her to “Mozart’s sister.” As she is left in boring Salzburg with her father while Wolfie tours Europe with his mother seeking a commission, brother and sister communicate and she hears all of the fanciful, wonderful fun he has while she must remain at home while her father seeks her “commission,” a marriage with a nobleman so she will be provided for especially since Mozart hasn’t been able to make his fortune to support the entire family.
When Marianne dons the prison of gender oppression (beautifully symbolized in the corset/panniers worn on top of a white, tulle gown that is the centerpiece of the woman’s role), we know that the life that was her own has been imprisoned in her own consciousness and her marriage will be a confining cage. All the more we empathize with Marianne’s plight. Evoked is the desperate understanding that Marianne’s career was limited by sexual default, though she is the elder, though she is possibly the more magnificent one because nothing was made easy for her. As we note Wofie’s encouragement, we have all the greater admiration for her that she excelled despite being relegated to Wolfie’s widening shadow.
Again and again, Marianne discusses how the two siblings are counterpoints, how Wolfie is mentored and engaged by her whom he imitates. Initially her name appeared first in the billing when they toured Europe. They are musical parallels despite their difference in age and gender and they support each other without envy until Mozart disobeys his father after his mother’s death. When he marries, he goes into a decline away from her and Leopold who doesn’t know his situation. The parallel ends; Marianne dignifies herself in her marriage and afterward. Mozart dies. Throughout her life story, we learn that despite “being kept down” Marianne burgeoned with her music, composing and playing and eventually giving lessons after her husband dies. The correspondence between Wolfie and Marianne only reveal one composition, but there may have been more. We are the worse off that none of her compositions survived.
To imbue the spirit of the 17th century and how Marianne adjusts to the social structure, the gender inequality and the soft feminine prison which allures and constrains, director Isaac Byrne stages Milo around the centerpiece of a stunning ecru/white 18-foot dress whose layers increasingly spiral outward to the edge of the stage (designed by Magdalena Dabrowska). As a metaphor for exquisite beauty, grandeur, luxury and oppression it is unforgettable.
Byrne brilliantly uses the dress to evolve Marianne from freewheeling spirit, a prancing, lilting child, to one who grows increasingly burdened by lavish, sumptuous social strictures that tease the eye and are an underlying torment (the courtly bows, the delicate grace of fan gestures, the perfume and powder, the stylized movements created by Styles Choreographer and Movement Director Janice Orlandi). With stunning precision the dress functions as props, settings, multiple themes, metaphors, and is the focal point of Marianne’s final transcendence as she rises up to be remembered and honored in this production.
The design team has done a splendid job to effect the beauty of this work along with the musical compositions (Mozart, Marianna Martines-a noblewoman who influenced Marianne, original music by Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen). In this indelible work each element melds with the themes to express Marianne’s perceptions and revelations.
The captivating, award nominated, award winning production is in a limited engagement at The Players Theater and runs until June 4, 2016. See The Other Mozart while this amazing production is still in NYC. You will be glad you did.